Some people dream of quitting their day jobs in order to freelance, but the fear of “what could go wrong” keeps them from making the jump.
I’ve done it twice now, once in 2005 and again in 2014. Both times, I did some things well and other things badly. And both times I loved the freedom, I hated the uncertainty, and I kept finding creative ways to move forward.
If you want to make a living freelancing but you’re worried about all the risks, these 13 tips for starting a freelance career by author Catherine Price are a great start. (She wrote them before the Affordable Care Act made health insurance less impossible for freelancers to find, but her other tips are timeless.)
Meanwhile, here are 10 other things that she didn’t mention — a.k.a., 10 mistakes NOT to make when you first start freelancing.
1. Have a nest egg.
No one jumps without a net unless they have to. In a perfect world, you should have a three month nest egg set aside… but let’s be honest: you probably don’t.
Just start freelancing while you still have a day job, and use your initial freelance revenue to build your nest egg.
You want to have enough money set aside to cover at least one month’s expenses, but more is better. The longer you won’t have to worry about where your next month’s rent is coming from, the more relaxed and creative you’ll be and the more confidently you can pursue the gigs you want, rather than just taking whatever you can get.
2. Sign contracts.
“But I trust people.”
So do I, generally. But I still insist on signing a contract, even with clients I’ve worked with repeatedly. Not that every client you have will honor their contract (though I’ve never yet had one who didn’t). This is really about two things:
A) Making sure both parties know what their actual responsibilities are, and
B) Providing you both with peace of mind in case things do go wrong.
No one wants to go to court to get paid. But if you ever have to, a contract means at least you stand a fighting chance.
3. Charge 50% up front and 50% upon completion.
Freelance is a feast-or-famine game, and you’re always chasing the next job while you’re executing the current one. This means you need as reliable a stream of income as possible to budget against.
Meanwhile, your clients aren’t always in a hurry to pay you. Whether by design or by accident, some well-meaning clients can delay your payments for weeks or even months due to paperwork SNAFUs.
For both of these reasons, I strongly suggest charging 50% due upon signing of the contract and the remaining 50% upon approval of the finished work. That way you’re not starving while waiting on endless rounds of approval.
Some clients may refuse to pay 50% up front, especially to a new vendor. If so, you may be willing to negotiate a different %. But be wary of a client who refuses to pay anything up front; that’s the sign of a cash-strapped business, which implies they may have other communication problems down the road.
4. Late fees and rush fees.
Not everyone is comfortable charging rush fees, but if a client requests complicated work with a crazy turnaround time, you have the right to adjust your usual price — especially if that means you have to move their project ahead of someone else’s.
Late fees are also optional, but they help deter indefinite delays. You may never even have to invoke them, but if they’re part of your contract, you’ll have the option of levying them on any delinquent accounts. Just doing so once can ensure that a client won’t suffer the same slowdown again.
5. Aim for retainers and recurring contracts.
All revenue is good revenue, but recurring revenue is the best because it means you can budget like a semi-sane person while you chase down your next big contract. On the other hand, recurring contracts are usually tied to specific tasks or hourly requirements, so make sure your pay rate matches those specifics and also accounts for those limits on your time. Hours you’re working for one client are hours you can’t spend on another.
6. Always have one client too many.
Early on, you may just want any client you can get. But once you start getting a stable base of work, make sure you always have at least one more client or contract than you need to break even.
Contracts end. Clients find other vendors. Your connections may get fired or move on. In any of those cases, losing a client you can afford to lose is much preferable to losing the one that was responsible for making sure you have lunch money.
And if a client turns out to be a problem? Relax: you can fire them and still pay your utilities.
7. Dedicate space in your home or apartment to use as a home office.
I know, I know: you want to be able to work from coffee shops and beaches and wherever, man. And you still can. But when you’re at home, dedicate a room or even a desk as “the freelance space.” It doesn’t mean you have to do all your work from there. But the work you do do from there can give you a nice tax deduction.
8. Have a routine.
The greatest restriction of the 9-to-5 life is also its greatest strength: predictability. People who have to be in an office know what they’re supposed to be doing while they’re there. And even if some slacking occurs, they’re still basically working for 8 hours a day.
When you’re on your own, you’re the only person responsible for making sure you get things done. No one else is managing you, and your clients just want to see the work get done; they don’t care when, where, or how.
As such, you need to impose your own schedule on yourself. Figure out when you do your best work and make sure you’re working at that time of day, every day. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day. Whatever kind of structure you need, adhere to it. Because if you don’t, a few weeks of “Hey, I can work whenever I want” turns into “Hey, I’m not doing any work at all…”
9. Get comfortable with selling yourself.
When I contacted Catherine Price on Twitter to let her know I’d be linking to her freelance tips in this post, she asked if there was any way I could also mention her new book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection. (As she joked, “Another freelance tip: engage in shameless self-promotion.”)
She’s right, though.
When you’re freelancing, you’re also your only sales rep, and the product you’re selling is you. It may feel artificial to have to convince someone else that your skills and expertise are “worth buying,” because you just want them to magically realize it about you and hire you without questions.
But no one is looking to do you any favors or throw you any bones; you need to go get them yourself. And if you don’t get business, you’re going to starve. So start believing that what you have to offer is worth the price. (Because if you don’t, someone else will get your business and eat your lunch.)
10. Your network can’t help you if they don’t know what you do, what you love, and how you can be helpful to someone else.
Okay, some people will do you favors. Your friends are happy to make connections for you, as long as they believe you’re talented and reliable.
But they also have to know what you’re good at, and what you need.
Look at your LinkedIn connections. How many of them can you really recommend to anyone else? (Heck, how many of them do you actually even know?)
Does your family know that you’re freelancing? Do they know what you’re freelancing in?
The more people know about your skills, your accomplishments, and what you’d like to do next, the easier it is for them to connect those dots when the opportunity arises. And the next time they meet a colleague who needs a new ad campaign / commercial video / wedding photography / magazine article / financial advice / whatever it is that you love doing, they can recommend you.
But not if you’re confusing silence with humility. So go ahead: toot your own horn from time to time. Just don’t deafen your network, or they won’t think you need the help. Or, worse, they’ll tune you out.
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